Everybody deserves a death ritual
Everybody deserves a death ritual, especially given the negativity placed upon death in the Western world. Memorial services and, for the most part, funerals, are for the living. Taharot are for the ones whose bodies have recently died. Judaism declares that a taharah is a way for the one who died to let go of the body. Judaism declares that the power of a taharah is a way to help the soul cross over to what comes next.
Within the context of Judaism’s assertion that there is only one G-d, or within the context of Judaism’s emphasis on social justice and equality, everyone deserves impartiality in this world and the next; both the living and the dead.
After establishing a policy in our chevrah kadisha regarding whether or not a non-Jewish spouse could be buried next to her/his Jewish spouse, there was a discussion about what may follow this policy. There was an assumption that a Jewish spouse, or a non-Jewish spouse while he/she is alive, for that matter, might want a taharah in the near future. Albeit with slight ambivalence, our chevrah came up with a policy that a death ritual similar to a taharah would certainly be appropriate, but without the Hebrew and certainly without any reference to Judaism.
When our chevrah received its first request to do such a ritual, the group of women who were to participate decided to ensure that all of the physical aspects of the taharah be implemented, even reciting “tehora hee.” We decided to omit the manual all together, however. When we walked into the room, I felt a slight uncertainty about what we were about to do. Although it is hard to admit, the thoughts that briefly crossed my mind were about whether performing this ritual was the correct decision; did it somehow lessen the importance of a traditional taharah, was it a superficial way of appeasing the family, were we doing something wrong. In that moment I envisioned my ancestors presenting themselves. I could not decipher how they felt about it, but their presence reminded me of the reasons why I was previously adamant that our chevrah get involved in non-Jewish death rituals.
I had participated in many taharot, so I was able to walk into the room calmly, although with a sense that this particular hour was certainly one in which I would find myself in unknown areas. What these “areas” were, I did not know. With this feeling still resonating inside of me, we began the usual process. The dynamic between the women in the room was familiar, and this is precisely what dispelled any muffled uncertainty.
As we proceeded through what ended up to be a very smooth ritual, with no complications, we enjoyed the silence and we also chanted. When the woman who had passed was dressed in her shrouds and placed into her coffin, she was no different than anyone else for whom we gave a taharah. She looked beautiful. We knew, throughout the process, that this is what she wanted, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. We then read poetry and spoke to her from our hearts. I knew that this taharah was more of a mitzvah than any other. She was elevated, and so was I.
Zoe Ariana Van Raan is studying to become a rabbi. She teaches Hebrew and Jewish studies, officiates at B’nai Mitzvah, memorial services and other rites of passage. Zoe also works with a hospice center, caring for those at the end of their lives. She is a student of the
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During the coming semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the online course. Chevrah Kadisha: Education, Organizing, & Training (EOT) [Course 3]. The prerequisite for this course is prior successful completion of Course 1, 2, 4, or 5. This course will run from May 3rd to July 19th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST/9-10:30 pm AST. (12 class sessions). There will be an online orientation session Monday May 2nd at 8-9:30 pm EST. Past Students, please note: We are using a new (to us) online Platform for the classes, so definitely plan on attending one of the orientation sessions if you were not a student in Winter 2016!
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Course 3 has a full academic curriculum that teaches principles of organizing, training, education, and working within a community. Even more than that, however, the focus of this course is as a practical, hands-on course that helps students bring Jewish practices and values to fruition. It is designed as both an academic course, and a practicum. Its central deliverable is the support and mentoring of students in conceiving and carrying out useful projects of their own related to the Chevrah Kadisha world, whether in their own community, congregation, or business, or on a larger scale. Thus, the course offers students a way to make a difference and have a meaningful and positive impact in the world—a “real-world” effect. The course includes material on principles of education and organizing, and projects can range from academic research and writing, to community organizing, to creative and artistic endeavors. Organizing efforts might include starting a new Bikkur Cholim/Caring committee, educating the community about the Chevrah Kadisha’s work, teaching about the running of the local Jewish mortuary or cemetery, helping the Chevrah Kadisha to expand its services, or producing materials for education or to share the beauty and meaning of this work. This course is a vehicle for those who wish to undertake a project, with guidance and support from the Gamliel Staff and other students, that will provide benefits and information to their own community and/or other communities. You can see examples of completed Student projects at Fall 2016:
Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. This course has no prerequiste. Please note it on your calendar, and plan to attend.
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